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Ask the Expert: Compass Counseling Services

Apr 06, 2024 11:36AM ● By Emily Freehling

A Partner for Families


Managing and guiding behaviors is one of the primary tasks of parenting. For parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays or other behavioral health challenges, this task can at times feel impossibly difficult. But research has shown that parents and caregivers who are involved in their children’s behavioral treatments experience lower levels of stress. Compass Counseling Services emphasizes the role of parents in all of its treatment programs.


Compass is a behavioral health agency that has been serving children and families throughout Virginia since 2004. Compass is a Medicaid-only provider that offers customized applied behavioral analysis (ABA) services to children under 21 who demonstrate significant impairment in adaptive functioning that is related to either developmental delays or other health conditions.


As our April Expert, Alisha Gordon, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who is Compass’ Clinical Director, talks about the Compass team’s goal of taking care of the entire family as the best way to serve the child in need of services.


Q: First off, what is applied behavior analysis?


Alisha Gordon: ABA is a scientific approach to changing behavior in an intentional and methodical way. Behaviors are anything a person does that can be observed and measured. A lot of the behaviors we work with stem from a lack of communication skills, so a lot of what we do is to build up communication skills that can replace the behaviors we want to see reduced so that children can interact more successfully with those around them. Our work at Compass is mostly with children with autism and related diagnoses.


Q: Why are parents and caregivers such an important part of the work you do?


Alisha Gordon: People sometimes don’t realize that ABA is not intended to be a forever service. Our goal is always to start with a child or a family and make as much progress as fast as possible, so that they don’t need us forever. Our ultimate goal is always for our parents to be able to do the things that we do, so that they are able to handle the situations that are going to come up in the future. When parents receive training, they can feel empowered to know that they can rely on the skills they have learned as their child goes through ebbs and flows with different behaviors.


Q: What do you notice as parents and caregivers take part in services along with the child?


Alisha Gordon: For those parents who are doing the parent trainings and are there in the sessions, learning the new skills and techniques, we see a real growth in confidence. They have the attitude of, ‘OK, maybe I haven’t seen this behavior in my child before, but I remember we talked about this at ABA,’ or they may be able to refer to materials or other resources we’ve provided in past sessions. And they’re able to handle those new challenging situations a little bit better. ABA is based on the understanding that all behavior is communication. When parents know that, and they are equipped with some of the background we provide them, then new behaviors they see in the home may become less overwhelming. They can have more of a sense for what they can do.


Q: How does parental involvement look in the day-to-day of your practice?


Alisha Gordon: We actually teach all of our Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) that the patient is the family—not just the individual client. When a child has autism spectrum disorder or any other diagnosis, it’s the entire family that is impacted. So teaching the whole family and the people who interact with the client is our ultimate goal. We work very sensitively with the different dynamics, cultural traditions, living arrangements and other characteristics that are unique to every family. Our treatment is individualized for every family. It’s not a generalized treatment.


As far as the day-to-day, we encourage families to be involved as much as they are able. We have some who are there literally every day, either observing our sessions or involved in some way. But everybody has different work schedules and availabilities, and we do offer some services in a clinic setting where clients stay for a large part of the day. While the parents may not be there for every moment, one-on-one parent/caregiver meetings with the BCBAs are part of all treatment options. Those meetings are with parents alone, because we don’t ever want a child to interpret our discussions with a parent in a negative way. But we do want parents to have that safe space to voice their frustrations and work through them. We do one-on-one meetings with both parents and children throughout our sessions.


And as we are working with the children, we set goals for our parents as well. This can help avoid that overwhelming feeling that can come with a new service, as there is so much to learn with ABA. These goals give parents a way to really focus in on what’s important—like if there’s a behavior they are seeing that is particularly dangerous—and what works well in their family or household.


We also help parents with what we call "care coordination." This can be helping them find resources, connecting them to other providers such as occupational or speech therapists, as well as coordinating with schools. This helps to connect the entire treatment team as we are all an intricate moving part in the client's life. 


Q: What’s a message you’d want to deliver to parents or caregivers who are just starting out in seeking ABA services for their child?


Alisha Gordon: Often when we meet with a family for the first time, they’ve been battling with this alone for a long time. They feel like they can’t get the resources or the help they need. I just really want parents to know that there is support out there, there are people who really do want to help, and you are not alone. We’re going to tackle it as a team, and you’ll be able to see the difference. You’ll have the power to help make change, and it won’t be like this forever.


To learn more, or to get in touch, visit Compass Counseling Services is a Medicaid-funded provider serving individuals in the Fredericksburg area, including Spotsylvania, Stafford Caroline, Culpeper and King George counties and the city of Fredericksburg.






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